Tech Company Founder Builds on Lessons from Nelson Mandela

nGen Works' Carl Smith learned the value of money from his grandmother


For the opening speaker in the Florida Blue One Spark Speaker Series, it only seemed fitting to welcome a local. Jacksonville-based Carl Smith kicked off the series with his talk “Your Money & Your Life.” Smith, owner and founder of local tech-based company nGen Works, took the stage April 18 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts Terry Theater.

Based on the idea that most businesses are using archaic operating systems in everything from office culture to the bottom line, Smith spent the hour giving a chronological overview of his 25-plus years as a small business owner. Peppered with self-deprecation and plenty of four-letter words, Smith was entertaining and full of energy while sharing his story.

In the beginning of his talk, Smith remembered being at a dinner event with Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of The Brooklyn Brewery, and how he had said, “We could all be millionaires, but there’s that one thing we won’t do.” Smith said Oliver was referring to cheating, stealing and hurting people. Basically, if people would do virtually anything to make a buck, they’d be rich.

For those not interested in squashing the little guy to get what they want, Smith offered words of wisdom on owning your own business, having a happy team, and still creating financial security.

“Money is an exchange of stored energy,” he said.

This proved the meat of Smith’s speech. When someone offers you money, they are asking you to do something in return. This can come in the form of mental or physical stored energy, as evidenced by Smith’s relationship with his grandmother.

“I try not to speak ill of the dead,” Smith said, “but my grandmother was not a very nice person.”

The matriarch came to live with the Smith family and offered young Smith $20 per week to listen to her – literally sit there and listen to whatever she felt like saying, which was usually about “The War of Northern Aggression.”

“The exchange rate sucked,” Smith remembered.

After three weeks of listening to his grandmother’s rants and raking in $60 — which was a huge amount of money back then, especially to a child – Smith quit. He said he felt that the exchange of energy he was exerting on his grandmother was not worth the money. This experience proved a building block for Smith in finding success as a business owner.

After 14 years of working at Husk Jennings, a Jacksonville advertising agency, Smith went out on his own and established nGen Works.

“When you start your own company, there’s nobody left to blame,” he said.

After a while, Smith realized he had built a company just like the one he had left – a business hierarchy where the person at the top (Smith) sucks the energy out of everyone below.

“I realized that money is not the key to people being where they need to be,” he said. “There’s extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. We’re all supposed to just ebb and flow.”

Smith knew he had to make changes.

“I said, ‘Fuck that, I’m going to read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography’” – a book that he had been meaning to read. “He doesn’t change his goal, he changes his approach,” Smith said of Mandela’s mission to end apartheid in South Africa. During Mandela’s 27-year prison term, he transitioned from “nice terrorist” (leading a bombing campaign against government targets) to talking to and listening to people about their views.

So Smith decided to take Mandela’s lessons to heart and “break the pattern.” He stopped trying to control everything within his company. He accepted the choices he had made. He vowed not to judge other people and instead focus more on what it is he wanted. Smith also decided to care less about what people thought.

The result is nGen Works, Smith’s successful tech-based, creative firm based in Jacksonville. In fact, Smith’s so confident in the way he’s built and rebuilt nGen that he offers the company’s work process for free on a Wiki page.

Smith also travels the country giving talks like this one, offering advice on “Your Money & Your Life.”

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